Thursday, August 9, 2018

Creating the Dunning-Kruger generations, Part 2

Knowing what we don’t know

To introduce the Dunning-Kruger effect, here is John Cleese (of Monty Python fame).

I was reminded of the Dunning-Kruger effect by Daily Kos contributor “Shockwave” who reported on Trump’s base mindset/cult and the Dunning-Kruger effect. The effect can be visualized in this simple graph.

Dunning-Kruger effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect:
If you don’t know much
you think you know more than you do.

Bear in mind as you read on that the effect afflicts us all. Why? Because we are all not experts in everything. In those domains in which we are not experts, we will tend to overestimate our expertise.

The Dunning-Kruger President

Writing in The Cut Jessica Pressler names Donald Trump, the Dunning-Kruger President.

Ever since Donald J. Trump was elected president, David Dunning’s phone has been ringing off the hook. Dunning, a social psychologist, is one of the lead authors of “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology based on the results of a study he and a student, Justin Kruger, conducted at Cornell in 1999. As the title suggests, what they found was the existence of a cognitive bias in which the less able people are, the more likely they are to overestimate their abilities. Or as Dunning put it recently over the phone from the University of Michigan, where he now teaches: “People don’t know what they don’t know.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect, as it came to be known, was an immediate hit with armchair psychologists: Everyone knows someone they could diagnose as too dumb to even know it. …

… “During the campaign, Trump made a number of statements that didn’t seem well-considered,” Dunning says, citing Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban, his apparent unfamiliarity with the nuclear triad, and the time he suggested United States creditors “take a haircut” on Treasury bonds without seeming to understand the role of said bonds in the world economy. “It seemed, especially in contrast with Hillary Clinton, that this was one of the least prepared candidates in my lifetime, but also the most confident candidate. It seemed like the most public example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, or something that looked like the Dunning-Kruger effect, that I’d ever seen.”

Dunning was confident enough in this assessment that back in May he weighed in with a piece for Politico [see below], suggesting that not only was Trump a manifestation of the effect but that support for him was grounded in similar ignorance. “They might like some of what they hear from Trump,” he wrote, of Trump voters. “But they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.”

Of course, as the results of the election revealed, Trump supporters weren’t the only ones “suffering from Dunning-Kruger,” as goes the social-media j’accuse. As it turns out, we were all the deluded simpletons.

[Some of] what we know about the Dunning-Kruger effect

Dunning has more to say about the research on the Dunning-Kruger effect especially as it applies to Trump and his supporters. Back in 2016, before the election, David Dunning wrote about The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump. The popularity of the GOP front-runner can be explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Here are quick takes on the supporting research.

Psychological research suggests that people, in general, suffer from what has become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They have little insight about the cracks and holes in their expertise. In studies in my research lab, people with severe gaps in knowledge and expertise typically fail to recognize how little they know and how badly they perform. To sum it up, the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task. This includes political judgment.

We have found this pattern in logical reasoning, grammar, emotional intelligence, financial literacy, numeracy, firearm care and safety, debate skill, and college coursework. Others have found a similar lack of insight among poor chess players, unskilled medical lab technicians, medical students unsuccessfully completing an obstetrics/gynecology rotation, and people failing a test on performing CPR.

In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.

… the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.

Trump himself also exemplifies this exact pattern, showing how the Dunning-Kruger Effect can lead to what seems an indomitable sense of certainty. …

On top of all that, Shockwave cited the alternet.org story A Neuroscientist Explains How Trump Supporters Are Easily Hoodwinked Because of This One Psychological Problem (Bobby Azarian/Raw Story). Those who score low on political knowledge tend to overestimate their expertise even more when greater emphasis is placed on political affiliation. So the effect is really engaged when it comes to politics.

Creating the next Dunning-Kruger generation

The disturbing possibility that motivated these posts begins with this observation from Dunning:

… the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.

The lead photo in Part 1 of this series led me to wonder if children who attend Trump’s rallies were learning to be overly confident in what they think they know. Might they be in a perpetual environment of “false data, facts and theories”? Unfortunately, after a few hours on Google Scholar (and other searches), I could not get a fix on a body of research that might confirm (or disconfirm) my suspicion. If you know of relevant research, please let me know (at wsmaki@gmail.com).

So, anyway, here is my conjecture. Instead of “voters” in that passage, substitute “Trump voters’ children.” To be sure watching children ape their parents shouting “lock her up” with heretofore unimaginable vehemence is horrifying, but think about what else these kids might be learning that will dispose them during their lifetimes to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Filling their heads with “false data, facts and theories” might render them especially unable to accurately evaluate what misinformation is fed to them and thus leave them believing that they know more than they do.

The Dunning-Kruger President

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